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Understand how life insurance works

After the Death of a Loved One, Some Decisions Can — and Should — Wait

Losing a loved one can be heart-wrenching. But couple that with handling funeral arrangements and personal affairs, and it can be overwhelming.

“When you’ve lost a spouse or partner, it affects every part of your day-to-day life,” says Peter Lichtenberg, director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University in Detroit. “It’s such a reorganization of who you are. It’s like taking things and shaking them up.”

Lichtenberg should know. He has been widowed twice.

Following the death of a loved one, Lichtenberg says, people feel pressured: “Everything just got shaken up, and now they feel pressure to reorganize their life and put it back together.” It takes time for the surviving party to get reorganized, Lichtenberg says, adding, “There’s a vulnerability that comes with that.”

In the midst of grief, it’s essential to take your time and seek second and third opinions regarding major decisions, especially financial decisions. “If you rush, you are really vulnerable and you’re not thinking clearly,” Lichtenberg says. “You can get yourself into some predicaments.”

Here’s a quick guide to decisions you need to make right away after the death of a loved one, and what can — and should — wait until you’ve worked through some of the grief.

Decisions you’ll need to make quickly

  • Arrange for organ donation. If your loved one wanted to donate organs, or make a whole body donation, let hospital staff know immediately. Organ donation is time-sensitive.
  • Secure property. Lock your loved one’s home and vehicles. If you’re the appointed executor for the estate, consider changing the locks on the home, especially if several people might have keys.
  • Arrange the next steps for your loved one. Unless your loved one made prearranged plans, you might consider:
    • Calling a funeral home, which can help with burial or cremation. Check reviews and prices. Shopping around can save money and reduce unwanted surprises. Funeral homes also can provide service options, help order a casket or urn, or arrange for cremation or donation. You may also order caskets or urns online and save hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
    • Calling a crematory. This option can often cost less than working with a traditional funeral home.
  • Write an obituary. If you want help, there are obituary templates online. You can pay to publish it in your local newspaper; if you’re working with a funeral home, they’ll usually contact the newspaper. Obituaries can also be published online for free at sites like everloved.com or remembered.com. Also, you should learn what to do with the deceased’s social media accounts.
  • Contact the post office to forward mail. Estate executors can file a request at the post office to have your loved one’s mail forwarded to your address. This prevents mail from piling up and helps identify bills you need to pay and accounts you need to close.

Decisions that can wait

When it comes to major decisions that can affect you for years to come, Lichtenberg suggests taking your time, or at least getting additional, trusted perspectives.

“Grief requires us to take some time,” he says. “It’s a very vulnerable state. You think you’re making rational decisions, but you’re really not taking in the information and seeing it in a way that you would otherwise, with perspective. It’s good not to make those decisions right away and certainly not to make them alone.”

Decisions to hold off on include:

  • Selling or buying a home
  • Moving
  • Leaving a job
  • Large financial decisions, such as purchasing a prepaid funeral for yourself or a large annuity
  • Higher-risk investments

Postponing investments or purchases is especially true for someone whose spouse or partner handled the finances. “The surviving person has to learn a whole new set of skills, which are complicated, confusing and frightening,” adds Lichtenberg, who is also a nationally recognized expert on financial exploitation of older adults. “That’s one of the ways they become targets for exploitation. Abuse of trust happens in every segment. There’s a lot of good people out there, but there are a lot of people who will take advantage.”

Finally, Lichtenberg cautions, “It’s probably best to not steer away from those financial values you held before the death. You want something to make up for this loss and you have to be careful of who’s selling you what.”


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